Thursday, 28 January 2016

The Prince and the Bell Pepper

There was once a princess and she wanted a prince, but then he must be a vegetarian prince. A real vegetarian, not a flexitarian, a pescetarian or a meat reducer, but a full-time abstainer of meat, which yes, includes fish, molluscs and crustaceans. And to be a real prince he must be a decent cook for in this enlightened day and age there were no kitchen slaves, and princesses although trained did not want to be held responsible for every repast and every growling palace stomach.
Unfortunately, real vegetarian princes were thin on the ground, as rare as the jewels on the King's crown: not to be found just anywhere. But then this particular princess hated dating. Any dating, even organised dates conducted at a royal speed where she would be obliged to pass down a line of prospective suitors proffering to each a gloved hand and a few strained polite words as her mother, the Queen, looked on.
The Princess, in the past, had been accused of coolness because she failed to react to romantic gestures. In fact, any gestures with romantic overtones made her uneasy: she refused to accept them for what they were and questioned their authenticity. Why? What's the agenda? And despite being a princess she disliked any light being shed on her. But then she detested those that planned adventurous, supposedly fun, dates where she would have to participate, have her sportsmanship assessed. What was wrong with a cup of tea, a walk, a talk, an art gallery? She would really rather skip what everyone else thought was the good bit, so she could be herself instead of feeling as if she might descend into clumsiness at any given moment. Therefore, her attempts, at best, had been half-hearted: agreed to, but not altogether enjoyed, and the few frogs she'd kissed had been eventually dismissed for their carnivorous or all- consuming nature.
She considered it her duty, as did her parents and their diminishing kingdom, to marry a prince, but she had no intention of losing who she was in that negotiation. The very idea of marriage seemed like a form of decay, a whittling away until perhaps one day the person before the mirror was unidentifiable. An imposter, with the soulful light that used to play imprisoned in the glazed irises. Along with fearing this outcome for herself she feared inflicting it on someone else, yet brushed aside these dreads as her pre-any-commitment jitters for if she found a prince who shared her principles she was sure these concerns would clear. 
So she beseeched the few palace retainers to cast an ever-wider net but there was always something wrong. Some irritating habit the princess couldn't possibly live with or a disparity in opinions or interests. The princess was on the verge of giving up when disaster struck in a distant province. There'd been an sudden outbreak of influenza which meant the Head of State was too unwell to welcome a foreign prince who was due to visit their shores any day. Could the King possibly help? Being a benevolent King, he agreed, to which the Head of State's PA replied that the prince, on arrival, would be conveyed to the palace. As an afterthought, he added, oh, and he's vegetarian. My apologies again for the inconvenience.
Two days and three nights later, during a wild storm, there was a knock at the town gate which the old King answered to find a rain-soaked, yet debonair prince behind. He heartily greeted the traveller, ushered him in and then left him in the Queen's capable hands who was convinced he was not a vegetarian prince and needed to be tested.
The Queen took the prince on a tour which ended in the kitchen where she laid out their stores: meat, fish, vegetables and grains, remarking to the prince that even guests prepared their shared evening meals. The prince upon hearing this instantly rolled up his sleeves and washed his hands, then ignoring all other foodstuffs on the table chose a red bell pepper to roast over an open flame. A carnivorous prince would never have done that.
The princess was persuaded to make him her husband. And the roasted pepper, in case you were wondering, was eaten and enjoyed.
Now this is a true story.

Picture Credit: Peasant Burning Weeds, Vincent Van Gogh

Thursday, 21 January 2016


A contemplative evening led to a restless night.
The sort where you twist and turn, throw the covers off and pull them back on, continually shift your sleeping position and your head on the pillow; in short suffer a mild bout of insomnia before seeming to drift into the land of nod and the beginnings of a very strange dream.
Write it down, people say. But I think they mean when I immediately wake, and not sometime during the course of the next day. Why would you keep a pen and pad beside your bed? For this purpose, you imbecile. Yes, but even if I did, I wouldn't think to reach for it straight away. Who has the time or the mental capacity for that matter when your brain's coming to? Obviously not you.
And in case you're wondering, this conversation is not aimed directly at you, the reader. It's an internal dialogue being held between I assume the left and right hemisphere. I can't think who else would be doing the talking... unless it's my stomach, the seat of emotion, conversing with my soul, wherever the latter lodges.
Anyhow, what was I saying?
Ah yes, dreams and how to catch them. How I try to catch those that I can't shake, those that made a lasting impression the following day, but even then it's hard to convey what I felt and what my inward eye saw. Words cannot help in this situation, written or spoken. They fail to adequately express what I want: the realness, the lucidness, the semi-awakened state. For that's what I was: semi-awake.
Can then what I'm about to describe be considered a dream?
Wasn't it more an hallucination?
How can you judge when I haven't begun?
Good question, although I will say that unlike your run-of-the-mill dreams or vivid but rapidly fading imprints I had no need to claw back this vision. The memory of it stayed; in fact it lingered for several hours.
That particular night, after much lying on my back and staring vacantly at the ceiling or contorting like a circus act, I curled up in the foetal position on my right side and finally felt the familiar drag of sleep. Sweet, delicious sleep... much longed for sleep...
With my eyes closed, as you would imagine, my mind, without any preliminary unconsciousness, instantly illustrated me on that brink: in a longboat, sitting upright as if I were the Lady of Shalott on my way to Camelot, minus the watery surrounds. Instead, the boat was laboriously climbing a steep slope on a mechanised track; clanking and groaning with every intermittent pause and renewed effort. Ahead, the peak and a patch of milky sky, with high ochre rocky formations on either side. Of course, it occurred to me that this was a theme park ride, although I had no basis for that assumption, but still I had little fear of the resultant plunge. I was ready for it. I welcomed it for I realised the deep pool of sleep would break that eventual dive.
In the instant that was about to happen I felt a light pressure on my crossed arms, a pressure that I was very aware came from outside this dream, and synchronous voices imploring me to “Wake up! Wake up!”
I grumbled aloud: Why now?! with other words of complaint I will omit, despite knowing I was talking to thin air, there was nobody there, yet the urgency to comply was unmistakeable. The mischief had been made, the trick had been played, if that's what it was, and I'd unwittingly fulfilled the assignation.
The moment of sleep for that night teasingly lost much to the delight of some imps.

Picture Credit: The Lady of Shalott, 1888, by J W Waterhouse

Thursday, 14 January 2016


An indulgent lunch led to a reflective evening.
Good food, no alcoholic beverage for me, but camaraderie. Two rich courses overshadowed by non-stop chatter and laughter. The past relived, the recent present caught up on. The latest disasters averted, the budding romances, the failed marriages, the trials of family life, the job woes, and the new resolutions. A social circle that's survived and shared many experiences, except age; all of us at a different stage in our lives. Young, middling, wise.
Those appearing young are in reality old; the middling neither youthful or mature, and somewhere in-between being quiet and forthright; whereas those assumed wise are young at heart, the flirtatious go-getters of the group. Not forgetting the couple that flit across all three categories like migratory birds: diving here and there, swooping in the air, whilst always being impeccably groomed. Quite simply, they put the rest of us to shame due to their coiffured hair, colour coordinated outfits and matching accessories.
It's fair to say that grouped together we resemble a smorgasbord: none of us are exactly alike, and yet we expect each of us to stay the same. To be the same each time we meet. No change. Events may have moved on, but personality and outlook should remain unaffected. Marie will moan and seek reassurance; Hannah will listen and interject when appropriate in soft, comforting tones; Tricia will try to be the centre of attention; Jan will be business-like; Catherine will attempt to jolly everyone along and usually succeed; Kelly will apologise for any slight she feels she may have caused in the run-up to these proceedings; and Natasha will look anxious but will nonetheless provide a sense of calm.
That being the case, how could our catch-ups possibly be merry? But they are. Only a bunch of women know how to meet each member's emotional needs and still manage to joke.
But where am I in this assortment of women folk?
I sit back and watch, taking part when I'm required to. Soaking up the setting like a sponge, absorb what's done, what's said, make mental notes, or try to engineer a one-to-one. That's the role I always play. I don't think they realise these days that my attendance is a huge effort. An undertaking I continue because I value their individual friendship, and yet there are times when I feel the bond is tired. Frayed, like a cord that's been strained in the same spot and which soon might snap from the repeated tension.
There have been more occasions than I could count recently where I've felt we're not on the same page or even in the same book. Not that I would admit to that fact in a telephone chat, by email, or to their faces. I have never sought confrontation and I do not wish to seek it now, although I know in suppressing it my tone at times may seem a little odd. Brusque or vague, and I'm sure regardless of what I do or don't say my body language gives me away. Just little signs that all is not well. As well as it used to be. That something about me is different.
And I do feel different; I'm surprised that nobody else does, unless like me they're hiding that reality under the layer of personality we've each come prepared to exhibit and to expect. I just find I don't want to be included as much and I don't want to engage with their concerns or share my own. I've always been a bit reserved, a bit private like that, sat on the outside and looked in, but now I want to be left alone and not needled. The group dynamic dies if a member feels obliged to attend the proposed outing, lunch, or girls' holiday, or has to come up with a not very believable feeble excuse. So why do I go? Because it's easier than laying my new self bare. Because it's hard to leave the old me behind.

All characters and events in the above are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.

Thursday, 7 January 2016


For lunch yesterday I treated myself to some mature goat's cheese on pumpkin seed and oat Ryvita. Cheese used to be to me what mashed potato was to Nora Ephron. Note the term 'used', as now it is a rare treat, a luxury, to curb a craving, or eaten from necessity because it features heavily in all vegetarian options on the menu. This isn't America where you can say to the server: Hold the cheese, because in the UK (or is it just small villages in Surrey?) there is a tendency for cheese to be the main source of veggie protein in mainstream restaurant dishes, and there's no offered extras or 'instead ofs'. In most cases that cheese is melted or embedded in a pre-made salad, sandwich or burger. And all you would be left with is very plain fare at the same exorbitant cost.
First it was cheddar, then mozzarella; goat's cheese then feta, until halloumi burst on the scene. The cheese world shaken by this invasion as everyone vied to do something with it. But unlike so many I for one was not bowled over. Its flavour, for me, too mild and its texture too greasy. Any melted cheese turns my stomach having seen what it does to your insides. Bacon sits, melted fat clings, both move sluggishly through your digestive system.
And yet occasionally that stored away memory of cheese and...crackers, bread, pasta, potato kicks in, a sharp pang of 'I want it. Now'. Mostly I resist, the 'ghost' taste enough to dispel the sudden yearning, and cave just once a year, discounting the dining-out where I've had no choice but to eat it in whatever format it comes.
So why be a martyr? Why impose this dietary rule? Vegetarians eat cheese after all. Or there's dairy-free, which coincidentally I don't get the point of. It's almost as good as the real thing, but it's not the REAL THING. It's overly processed, indigestible. It's like opting for products that claim to be low in sugar or low in fat, you're often better off going for the 'full' version. In moderation, of course.
I was never a moderate eater of cheese. That was the problem, and when I became a veggie at the ripe age of 13, the habit escalated. The compulsion to consume more than I reasonably should took over. My palms clammy, my fingers twitching like a narcotic addict. And like all addictions, cheese, in the end, had the last laugh. A fr-enemy. Something I craved, but couldn't have because the feel-good surge was short-lived compared to the longer-felt effects. Some people have difficulty tolerating dairy sugars and fats, and unfortunately I became one of them. Goodbye beloved cheese. Your richness is too much for me, farewell.
Recovered, I can treat but not indulge. The side-effects have lessened and so has its desire. The pleasure much, much fainter, my senses not driven mad as they once were.
Relapses, very few, although I now do have to include yesterday.
I gave in to my body's demands, thinking where's the harm? I am more disciplined these days. That was my first error of judgement. But that mistake was realised later. Much later when the delicacy was gone after one sitting.
The mature goat's cheddar had been procured three days before from a deli counter; a small weighed portion, enough for possibly two lunches, or one lunch and the rest grated as a topping for dinner. Unable to bear the torment any longer, I went about the making of my lunch almost religiously. The plastic wrapper and part of the inedible rind removed in a respectful silence, the first slice cut with a trembling hand. Oh Lord, bless the bounty I'm about to receive. That first slice, that first taste proved fatal. The undoing of me. My knife strokes gathered speed and surety as I covered three rectangles of Ryvita, my fingers quick to pick up crumbs and pop them in my waiting mouth. Done, there was only a small chunk left which was obviously too spare for another lunch and too lean to grate. For a second, if that, I paused, then committed myself to the act: finishing it in its pure state.